Director: Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell
U.K.| 1970. Colour. 105 mins.
Co-directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, Performance is now regarded as a classic of 1970s cinema and one of the greatest British films of all time. It’s being re-released in a new print by the British Film Institute. ‘I was very jealous of the first forty minutes of Performance,’ commented director Stephen Frears in his stimulating documentary on British cinema, Typically British. Liking his gangsters, Frears clearly relished this film’s elliptical and violent evocation of the London underworld, which builds to the moment when the young hoodlum Chas (James Fox) goes on the run after murdering a rival.
The next hour is pretty remarkable too, as Chas hides in the house of a pop star, Turner (Mick Jagger), who proceeds to turn the gangster’s framework of values upside down. From the brutal physical world of the first part, we move into the realms of the psychological, as Turner invades the gangster’s mind with drugs and attempts to break down his personality defences (perhaps the femaleness under the maleness, the tenderness under the terror). ‘The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way,’ cries Turner, ‘is the one that achieves madness.’ Very much of its time in its charting of the death-throes of permissiveness, which promised liberation but delivered decadence, the film remains a landmark. It was Donald Cammell’s finest hour; anticipated future cinematic pyrotechnics from one of our most original directors, Nicolas Roeg; and gave a new perspective on English film, so often associated with realism, restraint and repression but here rejoicing in passion, poetry and panache. When someone quotes yet again that François Truffaut chestnut about the incompatibility of the words ‘British’ and ‘cinema’, the rebuttal can be supplied in one word: ‘Performance’